Trail Hero of the Month - March: Ryno Griesel

Today sees the launch of Rockhoppin’ Trail’s THOM. Acronym lovers out there should be thrilled to see the inception of a pronounceable one – after all, I could’ve made it RTTHOM. But that would’ve been silly. So I opted for THOMTrail Hero of the Month.

There’ll be no rules for who gets to be RT’s THOM – I decide. The person can be South African or international, man or woman, short or tall, young or old, carb crazy or paleo…  The only must involves the achievement of something incredible on trail.

So, who better to kick start things than the lesser known hero of the invincible duo of Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel, who not only had the courage to take on the challenge of attempting a new record for the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, but smashed it by more than 18 hours.

March’s Trail Hero of the Month: Ryno Griesel

(slightly into April, as it is...)

Now that the Berg dust has settled and the boys have got their breath back after running their incredible record-smashing 207km Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT) last week, I managed to catch up with Ryno Griesel, the navigation and logistics wizard half of the Sandes / Griesel power-partnership that conquered what must surely be South Africa’s ultimate endurance challenge.

Setting a new record of 41hr49, Ryan and Ryno whipped a solid 18hr40 off the DGT’s previous fastest known time (FKT), which was set in 2010 by Ryno and fellow endurance adventurer Cobus van Zyl.

Ryan Sandes has become a legend in trail running circles around the world, winning endurance events and shattering records on all continents. Less is known about Ryno Griesel, whose modest yet strong demeanour understates his enormous capacity for taking on and achieving endurance feats that most adventurers would shy away from.

Age:    34
Profession:    previously a chartered accountant, now a sports shoe salesman…  (well, that’s what he calls himself, but actually he’s the Salomon general manager for Gauteng).
Past challenges:    Adventure Racing world circuit since 2003, International Rogaine (24 hour navigation runs in teams of 2) (placed 2nd with Nicholas Mulder at World Champs in New Zealand in 2010), climbing and mountaineering all around the world.
Passions:    summiting mountains, and helping to make a change for the better in people’s lives.
Plan in life:    to live a life of adventure to the absolute maximum… every day.

LD:      Would you say the DGT record attempt was the toughest challenge you’ve ever taken on?
RG:     Shew. I’ve done some tough races in extreme conditions… for example, in the Moab Desert for 8 days (the Primal Quest Adventure Race), and another 8-day race amongst the icebergs of Patagonia (the Patagonian Expedition Race), but in those all I had to focus on was racing. Our DGT record attempt was so much bigger than that – it was more like a project that for both of us incorporated both dream and passion, and this obviously brought in a unique set of expectations. Also the fact that I was teaming up with Ryan put a lot of pressure on me – he’s my absolute role model and I didn’t want to disappoint him, and that was mentally very challenging for me. So yes, this was by far the biggest challenge I’ve ever tackled.

LD:      The months leading up to the DGT record attempt involved intense preparation. What did this involve?
RG:     Our challenge required preparation on many levels. On the physical side, we needed to be as fit as possible. That involved terrain specific training. Living in Pretoria, anything resembling a mountain is hours away – the nearest thing we have to mountains here are the hills in the Magaliesberg. Fortunately the Drakensberg is only about a 5-hour drive from Gauteng, so in the months leading up to the DGT I went up as often as I could – either alone,  or with Ryan (Cobus Van Zyl (my previous co-record holder) often accompanied us. We trained by simulating the environment and conditions in which we would run the DGT.

Then there was altitude acclimatisation – we needed to spend a lot of time in the Berg in the weeks leading up to the attempt so we could adapt the body to running at altitude.

Navigation was another crucial aspect of the prep. Although I already knew the route fairly welI, we spent a lot of time going through the navigation, learning the maps and the route in our heads, and also preparing the best possible GPS track. We fine-tuned it, re-plotted waypoints, and tweaked sections of the course here and there. Cobus played an important role and assisted us with everything. We were pedantic about the GPS track and trying to find the most optimal and efficient route.

Logistics were crucial. Planning the record attempt involved a lot of careful organisation by everybody involved. Apart from the navigation aspect, my role included being an additional information link for the photographers, the filming company and for our back-up logistical team, based on my previous knowledge of the berg and the challenge. By mixing all our expertise together, we hoped to achieve the most efficient traverse, and be able to capture the most spectacular film of the attempt and of the bigger picture.

This required an all-or-nothing approach – we took very little equipment, which meant we paid a lot of “school fees” during our recces, finding the balance between going lightweight versus being irresponsible by carrying too little.

A lot of our time was also spent ensuring that the record attempt kept within the rules of the challenge and the ethics of mountaineering. This is something we feel very strong about.  

LD:      Are you experiencing feelings of anti-climax so typical after having taken on a big challenge?
RG:     I am definitely experiencing those feelings. Having gone through what we did and having lived our dream of achieving this, it’s like I’ve seen the view from the summit and now I’m longing for more to match that. Trying to integrate back into the normal daily life is not that easy. The “what’s next” itch is definitely there. Watch this space…J

LD:      I imagine that your two mottos in life – “the way to the top is always uphill” and “anything worthwhile requires hard work” together truly epitomised the record attempt.
RG:     When slogging on the mountains, even when racing as a team, you rarely talk much and you spend a lot of time in your own head, pushing hard. The motto of “the way to the top is always uphill” came to me during Cobus’s and my 2010 record attempt, when it occurred to me that after every downhill comes yet another uphill, and that in life we should always expect that. As soon as you realise that and make peace with the fact that what you’ve taken on is tough, you stop hoping for something easier and instead prepare yourself for the challenge of what’s to come.
Anything worthwhile requires hard work, yes, but it’s also important that you’re very clear about your goal. With this DGT, very little of the entire traverse was fun – in fact, right from the start I really struggled and found it hard work. So the obvious question is why did we do it?  We did it because that moment you cross the finish line, that split second that you’ve set your mind on a goal and finally achieved it, makes all the pain and suffering you’ve gone through worthwhile. I believe that’s what makes us come alive. Often people have an ideal that they’re going to run on the mountain, that it’s going to be pretty, and much of it will be easy. In reality it’s not like that, it’s hard work. But it’s the fact that when you set yourself a tough challenge, achieving that challenge is what makes it all worthwhile.

LD:      Toughest moment of your record attempt?
RG:     Going into the attempt, the biggest variable and our greatest concern was the weather. We were very lucky and scored great conditions. We planned for the weather window as best as we could, but the reality that conditions can be unpredictable is always the risk. The good weather, however, came with a price: heat. I don’t function well in hot conditions, and we ran in 36 degs and with no breeze for a large part of the first day. I know from racing in the Moab Desert in Utah that I don’t function well in heat, while Ryan is naturally far more comfortable in hot conditions. My toughest moment was during that first day when I realised I was dehydrating – I couldn’t keep food down, I was losing energy and wasn’t able to replace it fast enough. I was in trouble and knew I had to do something to fix it, and fast! From experience I knew I would be able to push through, but that it would take a while to get my body back to a decent energy level to be able to push hard. So I took in very small bites of food consistently over long periods, and eventually recovered. My biggest fear was disappointing Ryan, letting him down, and even worse, not achieving the attempt. Working hard mentally and physically during those hours to get myself right again made that day extra tough! Ryan, however, was super supportive and carried me through the tough times.

LD:      Did you communicate this to Ryan or did you struggle through on your own?
RG:     I told Ryan straight away that I was taking strain. Having done team sports for so many years, I know there’s no place for trying to battle through the tough times alone. That’s what team work and partnering is all about – you each have your tough moments. In a team there’s no space for being individually brave.

LD:      Scariest moment for you both?
RG:     For Ryan, it was within the first hour, when he slipped and cut his hand quite badly. Then in the second hour he twisted his ankle, and we had to re-strap it. I also fell during that second hour and hurt my hand. So having both injured ourselves within the first 20km, we were anxious about what the next 50 plus hours might have in store. We were moving at a really fast pace, and in the dark. We felt really small out there, at night, on such big mountains. That was pretty scary.

LD:      Through all the adventure racing you’ve done, you have a lot of experience of handling sleep deprivation. What is the best way to manage lack of sleep during an event?
RG:     Unfortunately it’s not possible to save up sleep in advance, but it does really help not going into an event tired. The best thing to do is try to have a normal sleep pattern in the week leading up to a race. The other thing that helps me is an iPod. Both Ryan and I ran with music throughout the DGT (me a bit more than Ryan) – music helps to keep the head busy. And when you do realise you’re struggling to stay awake, have a power nap. Our first nap was 30 mins (not a very successful one as it was so cold up there), and then just a 10 min nap two hours later. From experience I’ve learned that ideally you want to grab your power nap just before the sun comes up. Waking up just before the sky is lightening helps to give you a mental shift that puts you in a whole new dimension for the coming day. So although you can’t really learn to adapt to sleep deprivation, you can learn to manage it better.

LD:      Nutrition during the DGT?
RG:     Normally I eat a lot – I probably eat more than anyone I’ve ever raced with. As long as I can keep fuelling, I feel strong. My struggles in the heat dampened this a bit. During the DGT we carried Llama Bars (nougat), protein bars, jelly sweets, small round cheeses, and zip-locks of Futurelife to mix with water as quick and easy meal replacements. I drank Pure Nutrition Blast (electrolyte replacement) mixed with PURE BCAA (muscle endurance). We found that we carried too much sweet stuff – the only thing that wasn’t sweet was the cheese, and Ryan carried some nuts. We got to the point where everything was just way, way too sweet.

LD:      Any war wounds to show for your achievement?
RG:     I was lucky to not get blisters. Both Ryan’s and my feet were very swollen afterwards. Interestingly, the insides of our calves took quite a beating and are very scuffed and raw with roasties – often we were running in deep-rutted cattle tracks which by their nature are very narrow, and big feet don’t operate too well in deep and narrow cattle tracks – we kept kicking the sides of the track and then scuffing the inside of our calves.

LD:      What shoes did each of you run in?
RG:     I ran in the Salomon Sense Mantra 2, and Ryan ran in the Salomon Sense Ultra 3 with a soft ground tread.

LD:      How did you find the final 5km physically and emotionally?
RG:     Physically that last section was very tough. It’s super steep, very loose and rocky, But our legs were finished by then, and there was high risk of us injuring ourselves on that terrain. We were very sore – everything hurt, the feet, quads, calves were all screaming. Mentally it was super tough because it was so much slower than we were used to doing that section in training (on fresh legs). We probably covered the final 8km downhill stretch in about 1hr45, and in training we would normally cover it in anything from 40 mins to 1hr. Although it’s very technical, it’s quite runnable, but by that stage we were just so broken. The tough thing mentally at that point was that we could see the finish from about 3 or 4km out, but it never seemed to be getting any closer! And then there were still two river crossings in the final 100m. Only when we crossed the final river and touched the gate did we stop concentrating on foot placement. It felt surreal to have finished!

LD:      Did you rest up well before the challenge started?
RG:     We rested as well we could, but also worked a bit on the film of the bigger picture. We also struggled with one the GPS’s maps on the last day, which was a bit stressful, but I guess that’s part of the challenges life throws at you.

LD:      Choice of final meal before you started?
RG:     I had pasta and Ryan had a steak (I think). We ate at 7pm, slept from 8pm to 10pm, then we drove up the 8km to the start at 11pm, and started the run at midnight.

LD:      Choice of meal after finishing?
RG:     Both my first and second meals were steak. I don’t usually eat red meat, but I had such craving for protein that all I wanted was rump steak. And coffee – I missed coffee!

LD:      As ultra-endurance athletes we all know that mental endurance plays such a huge role in the feats we take on, and that providing we’ve done the necessary training, mental endurance is as important, if not more important, than physical stamina. What do you think the ratio of mental to physical strength needs to be for a challenge like the DGT?
RG:     I would say that for this challenge it’s more like 50:50. You have to be in top physical form to survive the terrain, it’s so brutal. So while the terrain is incredibly tough, you also need to have the mental strength to carry on pushing your body. Ironically, the scenery up there becomes quite “boring” – it’s incredibly beautiful but because it doesn’t change, it becomes monotonous. And the distances between points are so vast, which plays with the mind – I often had to look down at the GPS just to see if we were making any progress. You need to have the mental strength to remind your body to keep up the pace you’ve trained for. So I think the DGT is quite a different feat from other challenges – this one’s an even 50:50 ratio of mental to physical strength. You have to be mentally prepared as well as physically, and you need to spend enough time training in the Berg beforehand to teach your body to connect the two.

LD:      What inspires you in sport and in life – if not the same thing?
RG:     I think it’s the realisation that we only live once. Sport, and specifically mountaineering, is for me an extension of the question of “why are we here?” I believe we’re here to do that thing that’s burning inside us that we can’t define and makes sense to no one but ourselves. My inspiration is to be in touch with that desire that each of us was born with: for me that desire is to run on mountains, for someone else it’s whatever drives them. So my inspiration in sport and in life is to be in touch with what drives me, what makes me come alive.

LD:      Mountains are very much in your blood, and the Drakensberg very much in your heart. You’ve climbed mountains in Africa, Asia and Europe. How old were you when you first realised you loved mountains?
RG:     I’ve always loved mountains – even though I’ve lived my whole life in Pretoria! I don’t really know when my passion for climbing started, but for as long as I can remember I had a couple of ropes in my bedroom as a kid, and was always intrigued by climbing up things. If something was high, I wanted to climb it, I wanted to see the view from the top. At first it was trees, and I fell out a lot of trees as a kid. The first time I was able to get onto big mountains was in 2002, when I climbed Island Peak (6 200m above sea level) in the Himalayas, and I was completely overwhelmed by how small we are in comparison to big mountains. That’s when I knew I had an intense love for mountains, and that climbing up and running on high mountains was what I wanted to do.
Even though at school I played all the traditional sports, for as long as I can remember I wanted to be in the mountains. The year after finishing school I did a course through the Exercise Teacher’s Academy as an outdoor adventure guide, and it was there that I was formally introduced to ropes and mountaineering. That same year I was part of an organisation called Sports for Christ Action, and I presented adventure camps in Namibia for a year. So although I had played with ropes and wanted to climb for years, it was only then that I started climbing properly.

LD:      Now comes the inevitable question…  it’s clear you have a deep passion for mountains, so why on earth do you choose to live in Pretoria??
RG:     Hah, yes, I’m always asked that! Even though I have a super strong desire for mountains, I also have a lot of respect and love for my family, and my family lives here in Pretoria. Family’s always been very important to me. So I live in Pretoria, and I drive out to the mountains as often as possible!

LD:      What’s next on your adventure list?
RG:     The DGT has definitely fuelled the fire for me! There’re a few exciting options popping into the pipeline for me over the next several months…  it’s a bit too soon to let on what these are… so we’ll see how things unfold.

                I think that’s Griesel Code for WATCH THIS SPACE!

Watch the teaser clip of the film that's coming soon of Ryan & Ryno's Drakensberg Grand Traverse record here: Drakensberg Grand Traverse

Photos credited to Kelvin Trautman / Red Bull content pool.

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